In the first episode of Netflix’s The Witcher, pale mutant warrior hero Geralt, played by Henry Cavill, rounds a corner to discover he’s been betrayed into an ambush. He looks around at the dozen or so toughs arrayed against him, and utters an appropriate witty bon mot: “Fuck.” It isn’t much in terms of dialogue, but Cavill delivers it with such understated weary sincerity that it becomes a punchline.
That sums up The Witcher — and Cavill’s career. He’s an enormously talented actor with impeccable comic timing, and he projects intelligence and urbanity. But Cavill keeps getting cast in noble-musclebound-hero roles that seem willfully designed to minimize his non-steroidal strengths. He should be Cary Grant. But in part because of his stunning physique, and in part because the market isn’t interested in Cary Grant anymore, he keeps getting cast as Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Cavill’s most famous role is as Superman in the DC Universe films. Playing a Kansas farm boy turned city-leveling Boy Scout in the grim and gritty Snyder-verse, Cavill was mostly tasked with looking soulful and pained. He brought humor to the role where he could, and in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, he managed one swoon-worthy romantic scene with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), where he reassures her, hands her a flower, then gets into the tub with her, fully clothed. In that sequence, Cavill is shy, gallant, silly, and smoking hot all at the same time. It may be the only scene in a modern superhero film that convincingly depicts grown-up sexuality. But then it’s over, and Cavill has to go back to looking tortured and hitting things.
The Witcher has a couple of bathtub scenes. They aren’t as inventive — Cavill is naked, for one thing. But he handles them with aplomb, projecting an amused, self-conscious sexuality as the story wades joylessly through bogs of fantasy tropes and tangles of intricate plot, desperately hoping to find the next Game of Thrones at the end of its quest. The story has something to do with the way Geralt’s destiny intertwines with that of a young princess, but chunks of clumsy exposition do little to clarify who’s doing what, or when, or to whom, or why we should care.
The uniformly talented actors, including Anya Chalotra as Yennefer of Vengerberg, and the wonderful Jodhi May as Queen Calanthe, do their best to project humanity and sentience while speaking utter poppycock. Cavill, a thespian with a preternatural gift of gab, is barely supposed to speak at all as the laconic Geralt, who issues gravely monosyllables, or mutters intensely about how it’s wrong to choose the lesser evil. They might as well have put a bag over his head and told him to act through that.
Cavill has been able to flex something other than his pecs in recent franchises. In Guy Ritchie’s wonderful 2015 Man From U.N.C.L.E., Cavill plays art thief turned CIA agent Napoleon Solo, a less-driven James Bond with better comic timing. Cavill seizes on the smart, verbose script like a magician who’s been denied playing cards for a decade. “Are we all turned on here?” he asks with hearty nonchalance when he walks in on his partner trying to fix a tracking device stuffed into a woman’s garter. In one magnificent scene, Ritchie and Cavill turn eating a sandwich into a soliloquy of lyrical banter. The film was a perfect vehicle for Cavill to showcase his considerable talents. So of course it bombed, and the planned sequels were stillborn.
Perhaps Cavill would have found a more natural home in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, alongside champion quipsters like Robert Downey, Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Rudd, and Chris Pratt. With 2017’s Justice League, replacement director Joss Whedon tried to mimic the Marvel style, and Cavill as Superman did well enough with the jokes. But he still feels wasted as a one-liner delivery system. He can do urbane, sophisticated humor and dashing vulnerability. How has he not been cast as a lead in a high-profile romantic comedy?
Maybe there simply aren’t enough of those in the current film landscape. Successful rom-coms are usually smaller films, and the men who appear in them tend to be comedic specialists like Seth Rogen, rather than the male superstars of old. Chris Hemsworth, who lacks Cavill’s suaveness, but has a similar self-effacing, self-confident charm, has also been relegated to action fodder. His foray into straight humor in the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot tanked. Keanu Reeves’ brilliant turn as a bitter, loquacious, reluctant lover in Destination Wedding is a blueprint for the kind of neo-screwball comedy Cavill could excel in. But even with Keanu and Winona Ryder, Destination Wedding failed to make back its modest $5 million budget. (Reeves had a very funny turn playing himself as an asshole film star in the Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe — a clever acknowledgement of how out-of-place actors like him are in films like that.)
Martin Scorsese has famously complained that MCU films have taken over the box office, making it harder for filmmakers who prefer more personal work. Perhaps that’s so. But the real toll of superhero ascendancy is on other genre work. There was a time in Hollywood when you could be a male movie star by donning a tailored suit to exchange verbal barbs and smoldering looks with Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell. But to really be a marquee male performer now, you need to wear colorful tights or leather armor, while CGI effects burst and sizzle around you. Cavill has the physique to fill out those ridiculous outfits, and he’s getting decent work. Still, every so often, he must look at the scripts he’s been handed, and think to himself, “Fuck.”